On July 9, 1955, David Lee Hayes, his wife, Ruth, and their 6-year-old son were spending the day on Dale Hollow Lake on the Tennessee-Kentucky border. The family had been coming to the lake from their Leitchfield, Ky., home for about three years and Hayes had developed quite a reputation for his ability to catch smallmouth bass and walleye from its deep, clear waters. He was so good in fact that several local fishing guides followed him on occasion, hoping to learn his secrets.
Things were slow that day, however. At about 10 a.m., Hayes was trolling his favorite diving plug — a 600 series pearl Bomber — with little to show for his efforts. That's when he decided to swing into a little cut between Illwill Creek and Phillips Bottom, just north of Trooper Island in Kentucky waters.
"There were a couple of weedbeds through there, and if you lined it up just right you could bring your plug right between them and keep it bumping the bottom," Hayes said in a 2005 interview.
He had about 300 feet of line out when the big fish hit. At first he thought he was snagged. Then he felt the surge of a powerful fish.
It took several minutes with his Tru-Temper steel rod, Penn Peer 209 reel and 20-pound-test line to bring the bass boatside, but Hayes eventually put a net under the giant.
"I had no idea it was a world record," he said.
When he got the fish back to Cedar Hill Resort where he kept the family cruiser, the bass weighed an ounce less than 12 pounds and measured 27 inches in length and 21 2/3 inches in girth. Naturally, it was the biggest smallmouth anyone had ever seen.
Hayes might not have known about the record, but resort owner Dick Roberts did, and he offered to take care of the certification for the angler. A few weeks later, Hayes received his notice from Field & Stream that he was the record holder.
And that's the way things stood until 1996 when a Tennessee school teacher discovered a 41-year-old affidavit from a Cedar Hill dock hand alleging that the bass had been tampered with. The document, filed in the Corps of Engineers office at the lake, claimed that the dock hand had stuffed three pounds of motor parts and sinkers into the bass and that its real weight was 8-15.
Upon hearing of this evidence, the International Game Fish Association (which took over the freshwater fishing records from Field & Stream in the 1970s), National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame and State of Kentucky all stripped Hayes of his world and state records. Only Tennessee (which shares Dale Hollow Lake with Kentucky) kept Hayes' catch on their books.
Ron Fox, assistant director of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, investigated the catch and controversy in 1996 and determined that Hayes' claim was legitimate. The dock hand's allegations were dismissed as the vengeful rants of a disgruntled employee who almost certainly wasn't even present on the day of the catch. Even the dock worker's family referred to him as a "career liar."
Despite Tennessee's findings, it wasn't until Bassmaster Magazine brought the story to light in the October 2005 issue ("The Case for David Hayes") that amends were made. Later that year both the IGFA and State of Kentucky reinstated his record catch. (The Hall of Fame reinstated Hayes in 1999.)
Fortunately, Hayes, then 80 years old, lived to see his fate turn around. Today, his 11-pound, 15-ounce smallmouth is not only the biggest anyone has ever seen, it's also the undisputed world record.